A Farm Grows In Brooklyn

Wander into Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood on a Saturday morning in summer and you’ll see a sight not uncommon in New York City these days: a thriving and well-diversified farmers market.

Neighborhood denizens cluster around stands offering free-range meat, raw-milk cheese, cream-on-top milk, and a whole array of fresh fruit and vegetables—many of them grown right down the block from the market.

Yet unlike most of New York’s bustling greenmarkets, which tend to thrive in upscale residential and shopping areas, this one lies in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Red Hook’s median family income is $15,000—below the federal poverty line of $19,000. Forty percent of the neighborhood’s families live on less than $10,000 per year. The unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds stands at 75 percent.

In fact, not many outsiders wander into Red Hook. When New York City’s legendary city planner Robert Moses patched together plans for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in the 1940s, he decided to spare aristocratic Brooklyn Heights and its stately brownstones, sending the BQE along the waterfront at that point. Just south, though, he let the road slice right into working-class Red Hook, leaving it shoehorned between a traffic-choked highway on one side and New York Harbor on the other.

According to Ian Marvy, founder of Added Value, the nonprofit that runs the farmers market, that isolation is only one of the historical legacies haunting the neighborhood. Rapid white flight in the 1950s, financed partially by the GI Bill and facilitated by the construction of highways and suburbs, left the neighborhood severely depopulated. According to Marvy, within 15 years of the end of World War II, Red Hook’s population had plunged from 50,000 to 15,000. Today, it stands at 11,000. According to the 2000 census, Red Hook’s population is 40 percent black and 40 percent Latino. More than 80 percent of its population lives in public housing.

Moreover, its main industry—shipping—collapsed. For decades, Red Hook’s thriving docks had sustained a robust economy. “After the war, city and state authorities decided shipping wouldn’t be part of the city’s economic future,” Marvy says. The maritime industry moved to New Jersey, leaving a void not only in dock jobs but also in the support economy: small shops, restaurants, etc. “Not surprisingly, a heroin trade developed in the ’60s and ’70s and hasn’t really left,” Marvy says. “And crack came up in the late 1980s and early 1990s.”

White flight, capital flight, a booming drug trade: It’s the classic post-war U.S. inner-city story.

MARVY FIRST CAME to Red Hook in 1998, working with young offenders through Red Hook Community Justice Center. “I realized that the kids doing community service weren’t doing anything that was meaningful to them, or to the community,” he says. “It was this wasted resource—here you had these kids who really needed to learn some new skills, and this community that could really have used some youthful energy,” he says. “And all they were doing was picking up trash in a park, or reshelving books in the library.”

Marvy talked a local nonprofit into letting his group manage a community garden that had fallen into disuse. He was surprised by how readily the kids embraced garden work. “Not only did the kids dive right into gardening, but they kept coming back to hang out in the garden even after their service was done,” he says.

Marvy learned that kids loved to garden, but they also needed a legitimate way to make money. Moreover, Red Hook’s only supermarket closed down in 2001 (it has since reopened), making high-priced, low-quality produce sold in bodegas the only option for fresh food. Market gardening suddenly seemed like an ideal focal point for community-development work.

Along with colleague Michael Hurwitz, Marvy launched Added Value in 2001. Their first project was the Red Hook Farmers Market, where they sold goods grown on their own garden plots as well as by area farmers. By 2003, they had gotten permission from the city to farm an abandoned three-acre baseball park in Red Hook.

In addition to selling its goods through the farmers market, Added Value sells salad greens and other vegetables to two nearby restaurants: 360 in Red Hook and Ici in nearby Fort Greene—both recently named among the five best restaurants in Brooklyn by New York magazine. It also runs a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, linking neighborhood families with fresh food from farms just outside of New York City.

Not only has Added Value established itself as a steady source of fresh, high-quality produce in a neighborhood with few options, but it’s also a source of employment for teens. Since opening in 2001, Added Value has provided a paycheck and training for 85 neighborhood teenagers.

As the kids have built an alternative food-production and food-distribution scheme for their community, they’ve emerged as active researchers and critics of existing food networks. In a piece appearing in Red Hook Horizons 2005, the kids’ annual newsletter, senior youth leader Tevon McNair reports that he and his peers have conducted two assessments of the mainstream retail-food scene. Visiting every food retailer in Red Hook, the group found some startling facts. McNair writes: “Did you know that 80 percent of stores down in Red Hook sell candy? And only 40 percent sell fruit and vegetables? Did you also know that 50 percent of stores advertise cigarettes and alcohol in Red Hook and only 15 percent advertise healthy messages?”

That research effort was part of another Added Value program: Digital Horizons, which aims to empower kids to participate in new media. Phil Shipman, Digital Horizons program coordinator, notes that the food industry spends $11 billion annually marketing junk food to kids—Coca-Cola alone spends $666 million. “Instead of being the object of an avalanche of spending to get them to buy foods that damage our health, they can be media producers, connecting communities in a healthy way.” Kids involved in Digital Horizons not only produce an annual newsletter, but also produce daily newsletters each summer during the Rooted in Community conference in Washington, D.C., a meeting of groups across the nation that use food production to empower youth.

DESPITE ALL THE progress, the problems that plague most low-income neighborhoods persist in Red Hook. Marvy notes that of the seven kids currently in the program, two have type 2 diabetes—“and every one of them has at least one family member with it,” he adds. Moreover, the neighborhood’s diabetes hospitalization rate is twice the New York City average for children, and 50 percent higher than the city average for adults.

But there’s no shortage of hope, either. Added Value is working with local elementary school PS 15 on a food-systems curriculum for first graders. “The whole first-grade class is spending three of their 35 hours of classroom time each week on our farm, learning all about where food comes from,” Marvy says. At a recent PTA meeting, the kids brought their parents to the farm. Says Marvy: “There were all these little kids tugging their parents by the shirtsleeves, saying ‘See? I told you there was a farm in Red Hook!’”

Tom Philpott farms and cooks at Maverick Farms, a sustainable-agriculture nonprofit and small farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in Grist, an online magazine of environmental news and commentary.

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